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Principle #3: Create Boundaries to Open New Pathways

To encourage new communication patterns between fathers and daughters, therapists must establish clear boundaries between mothers and daughters. In Casey’s family, this means challenging Elizabeth to avoid taking sides in the struggle between Casey and Bill. To do this, the therapist first gains Elizabeth’s trust by demonstrating that he understands why she feels driven to mediate conflict between them.

Therapist: (Turning back to Elizabeth) I imagine you’d appreciate seeing your husband and daughter find a new way to get through their conflicts without your being their translator. Am I right?

Elizabeth: (Smiling) Absolutely.

(Therapist walks over to Elizabeth and with a mischievous smile, asks her to turn her chair away from her husband and daughter. Elizabeth laughs, joining into the playful spirit, and moves her chair.)

Therapist: (To Casey) Do you think if you open up to your father, and your mom turns around, you can still stay focused on your dad?

Casey: Yeah.

(Therapist invites Casey and her father to talk. Their conversation is awkward, but they talk to each other without Elizabeth’s interrupting.)

During this exchange, Casey describes her struggles. Bill listens, attempts a few times to resolve her issues, but stays in the conversation. The therapist observes that Casey has opened up to her father, and they’ve conversed without either one giving up on the other, withdrawing, or turning away.
Temporarily blocking the mother–daughter relationship gives the atrophied father–daughter relationship a chance to develop. Here, Bill and Casey have the room to look at each other, both literally and figuratively, and begin a new type of conversation that’s just between the two of them. This also allows Elizabeth the opportunity to practice being present without being central.

Principle #4: Channel the Daughter’s Voice

Many adolescent and young adult women feel torn between trying to gain their father’s approval and resenting him for being emotionally unavailable and/or trying to control them. To gain access to their father, they hide the parts of themselves they think he’d disapprove of. This bind can manifest itself in violence, like suicide attempts or cutting, or through becoming invisible to themselves and others.

Therapists can break this bind by working directly with daughters to generate alternate ways of expressing themselves. One way to do this is by cultivating a cotherapy relationship with daughters, seeking their help in restructuring the family and fostering a climate that inspires more open and respectful communication. Bolstered by a therapist’s regard for their feelings and views, daughters will be likelier to risk speaking up in a more mature and purposeful voice.

Therapist: (Turning to Casey) Do you want to talk with your dad about what you’ve been dealing with at college?

Casey: I don’t really want to talk about it. I will, but I don’t want to.

Therapist: It’s your choice. (Turning to Bill) Are you interested in knowing what Casey has been contending with?

Bill: Absolutely.

Therapist: Casey, it’s your choice, but it’s an opportunity to share yourself.

Casey: I know.

By clarifying that it’s Casey’s choice what she shares with her father, the therapist demonstrates his respect for her, while signaling to Bill that getting to know Casey isn’t something he’s entitled to or can simply command, but something that needs to be thoughtfully cultivated between them.

Principle #5: Encourage the Father’s Expression of Vulnerability

In our culture, fathers are often trained to muffle their feelings. It’s commonly perceived that being a “good” father means being directive, sure of oneself, managerial, and protective; it doesn’t allow for the freedom to be vulnerable, uncertain, or to express love directly. Below, the therapist helps Bill experiment with new, more direct styles of relating to Casey.

As Elizabeth watches the mutually respectful conversation opening between Bill and her daughter, she becomes less vigilant and more inclined to trust their capacity to reach each other without her intervention. Bill begins to loosen his grip, admitting that he doesn’t know how to help. This is a significant step, and the therapist encourages it by reinforcing the message: be more interested in what your daughter is telling you than in imposing what you think would be helpful.

Casey: (Crying) I probably failed science, I’m not taking my meds, and I’m gaining weight. I just feel like shit.

Bill: Failing science isn’t the end of the world. Do you understand how much pressure you put on yourself?

Casey: (Sobbing) That’s not the point.

Therapist: Casey, could you stay in the conversation with your dad and help him understand more about what you need from him?

Casey: (To father) You’re not listening to me. You listen, but then dismiss it immediately.

Therapist: OK, help him out. Keep talking to him. Don’t sell him, or yourself, short. Help him understand what you want from him in this very moment.

Casey: (Crying) I want you to listen to me. Just listen.

Bill: What can I do to help? (Turning to therapist) I just want to hold her.

Therapist: Is that what she needs?

Bill: I don’t know.

Therapist: Ask her.

Bill: Would you like a hug right now?

Casey: OK.

This is the start of a significant shift in their interaction. Bill restrains his impulse to dictate and respects her expression of her feelings and needs. Though still tentative, Casey remains open and engaged with him and begins to use her voice to express herself.

These conversations are conflict-ridden, filled with outpourings of pain and discomfort for all family members. It’s important that the therapist not be deterred by the intensity of emotional expression, but be encouraged by the family’s ability to tolerate the growing complexity of their relationship. In such moments, the therapist’s recognition of the potential for new possibilities is pivotal to encouraging trust between fathers and daughters.

Cara Brendler, L.C.S.W., is on the faculty of the Minuchin Center for the Family. She specializes in working with families, couples, adolescents, and young adults, and has expertise in women’s issues.

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